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The Threat of Hyper-Depression

April 4, 2009
Robert Murphy
4/4/2009

In the Keynesian heydays of the 1950s and 1960s, most economists and policy makers believed in the “Phillips Curve,” which was the (alleged) tradeoff between unemployment and price inflation. The idea was that the Federal Reserve could cure a recession by printing money, or that the Fed could cure runaway inflation by jacking up interest rates. Each of these moves had its downside, of course, but the point was that the Fed could choose one poison or the other.

This Keynesian orthodoxy was shattered in the 1970s when the United States suffered through “stagflation,” which was high unemployment and high inflation. This outcome was not supposed to be possible, according to the popular macroeconomics models, and it left policy makers with no clear choice. If the Fed raised rates to stem the inflation, it would hurt the economy even more, but if the Fed cut rates (through printing more money) the inflation problem would worsen. The vacuum created by this crisis in both theory and policy was filled by the Reagan Revolution and supply-side economics.

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